11 July 2008

On Liberty: Part 4- Liberty and Government, Revisited

"I'm starting with the man in the mirror. " MJ

Up to this point I have been fairly one-sided on the subject of liberty, but I would like to note that there are definitely certain disadvantages to living in a culture dedicated to freedom. Such a culture cannot be all things to all people. For example, elevating liberty as the highest ideal in our country does, by necessity, preclude any other principle from taking precedence over it. There are well-made arguments in support of taking equality as our paramount value, or of sacrificing liberty at the altar of virtue. I don't happen to agree with these points (because I too highly regard my liberty to disagree with them, and them with me), but I can usually appreciate where they are rooted. Equality and virtue are worthy principles which any free society ought to pursue, just not at the expense of the freedom which allows them that pursuit.

These, however, are not the most brutal arguments against liberty, nor they loudest voices calling for its restriction, limitation, or abolition. That dishonor is reserved for... well, we'll get to that shortly.

You see, the hardest part about liberty is that when things aren't going how we'd like them to, there is nowhere else to point the finger. Oh sure, we try to do it all the time, masking our own accountability by couching it in fuzzy terms like "the government" or my personal favorite, "society." These expressions are so familiar they have become cliche: "The government is so crooked," or "Society is really going down the tubes." The fallacy lurking behind these seemingly innocuous terms is that they set up imaginary, shadowy, faceless groups on which to comfortably hang blame. The only problem is, when you are finally able to clear the smoke away, all you really find is a mirror. There is no government other than the one we decided on; there is no society other than you, me, and the neighbors.

Now here is the truth of the matter, the REAL "problem" with liberty: we don't always agree with the neighbors. We don't want them to have their liberty... if they disagree with us. And so, in a tragedy that is repeated every day, thus enters government. You see, government intervention and regulation is the last, best resort for those who want to restrict liberty, to deprive opponents of their freedom to disagree. Government, in this form, is exploited by both the strong and the weak, the majority and the minority--but its purpose is always the same. It is that some of us want to deprive others of us of their liberty. And the coercive force of government intervention is a particularly appealing means to that end.

One important note: as I've stated previously, government SHOULD intervene when a person's liberty is threatened or limited. Again, this is the primary function of government. Sadly, all too often the government becomes the vehicle by which liberty is restricted. And just to reiterate: "the government" is nothing more or less than what we decide it to be. If your liberty, or your neighbor's liberty, our your favorite support group's liberty is restricted, no enemy hath done this. We have. And we can fix it.


the narrator said...

so what limitations do you think ought to be placed on our liberties? in our largely partisan political world, it seems that both sides are shouting for liberties, yet both feel the government should jump in and infringe on the liberties of its citizens. on the right, we have calls for government intrusion into private liberties/rights (marriage, abortion, citizenship, private communication, speech, etc); while on the left we have calls for government intrusion into business rights and intrusions. and i guess on the north we have libertarians who call for the government to just pretty much back out of everything.

Bryant said...

And that is why libertarianism is the right answer. ;)

Bryant said...

Note that I use "libertarian" with a lower case....

Seriously, though, preserving liberty is a hard thing to figure out. That's why even the people that do hold that as the highest value won't always agree on how to go about it. (I don't particularly agree with the Libertarian party in all of its stances, despite them claiming the same ideals that I believe in.) That's why both of the main parties can call for liberties while trying to bring it about by limiting other liberties.

Of course, that's not always the case, either. I think it's probably more common in politics for us to act just the way Russ is describing: we willingly limit liberties because we disagree with how other people are using theirs.

Russ, I really like the point you make about "society" and the "government" just being used as scapegoats. They're just composed/controlled by individuals, so ultimately we have ourselves to blame for the things we complain about.

The exception to that is when we find ourselves in the minority position. When we're not really the face behind the smoke, but rather that neighbor with whom we disagree is the one that we're really criticizing. Trends in society only need to be set/supported by the majority, and choices by the government only need to be made by the majority.

So, while we can "fix" the instances where liberty has been given up (or taken away, depending on if you find yourself in the majority or minority of the circumstance), it's not as easy as deciding individually that we can fix it. It might start with each of us individually, but there's no power in that until it cascades through the majority.

Bryant said...

PS: These posts are fun. You should respond back to your comments.

Mr. Andrews said...

Loyd, thanks for the comments. I'd like to think that I'm coming out of the north here.

I think that the only limitation placed on our liberty should be in certain cases when it infringes on the liberty of others. That's all. Really. I do realize that even that statement is elastic, because there can be concrete infringement or implied but not outright infringement, and all sorts of gray tones in there. That's okay with me, but any restriction on liberty has to fit that model.

I think that one difficulty that people run into when discussing this is in the term "liberties." When the term "liberties" is used, it is usually not referring to the liberty itself-- the ability to make choices (think agency)-- but rather to mean rights or privileges, things that people would usually choose when given the option. In this form, "liberty" and "liberties" are not interchangeable. A couple of posts ago, Bryant talked about when liberties collide: "For instance, which takes precedence between the right to property and the right to an education? Between the right to privacy and the right to safety?" These are rights, not liberty. Liberty is the choice, not the options.

True liberty requires potential access to all the options. No option- no matter how great it is- should ever replace the choice itself.

Mr. Andrews said...

B, I like your distinction on minority opinions in " the government" and "society." We are not personally responsible for everything that happens in our nation or community. However, I still think the terms are misleading, because they aren't specific. It puts the focus on a non-descript entity. If you want assign blame or credit, make it specific to the people (or even better, the idea) responsible. Everything gets lost in "the government" or "society." It's like the black hole of accountability.

Bryant said...

"If you want assign blame or credit, make it specific to the people (or even better, the idea) responsible. Everything gets lost in 'the government' or 'society.' It's like the black hole of accountability."

I agree that the we use those as nondescript scapegoats, and I think it probably causes problems that we don't even foresee (like when the government starts trying to solve all of the problems that are blamed on it). I don't know if it makes sense to blame an idea. It seems like that would be as much of a scapegoat as blaming the nameless masses.

"When the term 'liberties' is used, it is usually not referring to the liberty itself-- the ability to make choices (think agency)-- but rather to mean rights or privileges, things that people would usually choose when given the option. ... Liberty is the choice, not the options."

I'm having a hard time understanding that distinction. It seems like even when you use synonyms like "choice" and "option", you're still just using plural and singular as though they are separate things. I can see a distinction between the ability to choose and the actual choices between which one is choosing, but even that distinction seems meaningless when you try to apply it to real examples. What's the difference between the government preserving liberty and preserving rights?

"I think that the only limitation placed on our liberty should be in certain cases when it infringes on the liberty of others. That's all. Really."

Are you willing to apply that to the neighbors with whom you don't personally agree? How about gay marriage?

Bryant said...

Sorry, that last question could open a whole can of worms that would really distract from the point of your post, but it does go back to what you said about how "we don't want [our neighbors] to have their liberty... if they disagree with us."

Stormie said...

Your blog is hardcore.

Mr. Andrews said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Storm. And for the question, Bx. The whole gay-marriage thing is becoming sort of a measuring stick, isn't it? Fortunately, I wrote a blog about this a couple years ago. Link to it at:


Now, my view have changed somewhat since then. If you've read the blog, I am now more like my libertarian friends I describe there. In the past two years, I've become more and more convinced that laissez-faire government is not only practical, but is the MOST practical form of government in a free society.

Do I think the U.S. government should validate gay marriage? No. Do I think the government should be in the marriage-validation industry at all? No. What makes a marriage valid is not a bureaucrat's signature.

Kristin said...

Ahhh.... so wonderful. Music to my ears!!! But here is my question for you, (I am sorry that I am just barely getting around to reading these, I should have read them as soon as you posted them) but my question is.... public education. Where does that fit in? I struggle with this one...